Each passing year means the inevitable release of yet another “Call of Duty” title. 2021 marks the third release in this new era of “Call of Duty” that is tied together by “Warzone,” a battle royale that promises simultaneous battle pass progression with all the games under its umbrella. In 2019 it was “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” In 2020 it was “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.” On Nov. 5, they were joined by “Call of Duty: Vanguard.”
The first-person shooter franchise has struggled for the last several years with a monotonous set of releases, each game bringing to the table more of the same from the year before. It was much like sports titles in that sense, drawing an amount of ire from its fanbase due to releases that didn’t offer the player anything new. Being grounded in warfare as a core narrative and gameplay perspective, it makes sense that after covering the last 100 years of war, “Call of Duty” would struggle to find its footing. For much of the 2010s, they toyed with the idea of what war in the future might look like, resulting in several titles that struggled to make the same impact that their earlier “Modern Warfare” and “Black Ops” games had.
“Vanguard” takes players back to World War II, the first entry since 2017 to do so. Rather than encapsulate the broad scope of what unfolded in the war, the campaign itself follows an elite task force as they attempt to capture a briefcase holding details to the secret “Project Phoenix,” a plan that neither the allied forces nor the Germans know anything about. The plot itself doesn’t really tell much of a story, instead, it lends itself to the backstories of the characters that players can use in multiplayer. The player acts as four different protagonists as they carve out legends in different parts of the world. The Australian Lucas Riggs was stationed at Tobruk, Libya, and foiled an ambush by the Italians. U.S. Navy Pilot Wade Jackson participated in the Battle of Midway and was grounded in Japanese-occupied territory to fight his way out. Polina Petrova was a medic in Stalingrad before the Germans invaded and she had to take matters into her own hands. Arthur Kingsley was a British paratrooper on the night before D-Day where his group had to disable weapons and make the siege of Normandy, the following day, easier.
I have mixed feelings towards the campaign. From a character perspective, it’s excellently done. The four main protagonists have personalities, an edge to them that sets them apart from most “Call of Duty” protagonists. You don’t play as a faceless name anymore, but as someone who you can want to succeed. However, the campaign is short-lived and doesn’t actually accomplish much in the way of overall storytelling. The optimist in me says that they left the ending at a place where I could see them building onto the campaign over the course of the game’s lifespan. However, the much more believable reality is that the campaign was likely just a selling point for the multiplayer mode, where players can feel a level of attachment to the operators they choose to play as. It’s a good use of six hours, but you’re not going to buy this game for the campaign.
There’s a good chance that if you’ve heard one thing about “Vanguard,” it’s the crisis surrounding the Zombies mode. Treyarch was put in charge of developing “Vanguard” zombies, and they made big promises. They proclaimed the birth of a new zombie storyline that delved deeper into the Dark Aether, a parallel dimension that was explored a bit in prior titles. Treyarch said they were revolutionizing the way we played Zombies. What players got instead, was an unfinished game mode that felt straight boring to play. In this rendition of Zombies, players take portals from a central hub in Stalingrad to various places to do various objectives. The catch is that there are only three different objectives and they take place on one of two multiplayer maps: Red Star in Stalingrad and Hotel Royal in Paris. However, I have a great deal of optimism towards the future of this Zombie mode. Treyarch was fresh off development for “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” and quite simply didn’t have the time to put the same love and care into the Zombies mode that we had become accustomed to. Treyarch has earned faith in how they will develop the mode over the next year and I have full confidence that the Zombie mode will feel like its normal self in the next month or two.
The multiplayer is really what holds this game together for the time being. It’s a fair bit buggy. The spawns on most maps are terrible. The combat shotgun is a one-shot kill to the body from 100 yards away (that is not an exaggeration). Everyone runs one of three weapons and some of the camos aren’t even unlockable due to the fault of the developers. But despite all of this, the multiplayer feels more fun than it has in years. The maps feel complex due to the emphasis on vertical development and they launched with the most multiplayer maps than any “Call of Duty” has in a long time. Only two of the launch maps were remakes, Castle and Dome from “World at War,” both incredibly well-done. The emphasis on destructible terrain is better executed than it was when they introduced the feature in “Modern Warfare.” The guns feel terrible to level but also feel incredible when you do unlock the attachments for them. Most importantly, they feel and sound good to shoot. They introduced combat pacing in such a way that you can have 6v6 on big maps or 20v20 on small maps, completely enhancing the “Call of Duty” experience beyond anything we have seen.
This game is far from perfect, which should be mentioned. But it has a stellar foundation to build on over the next year, and in recent titles, the developers have shown an exceptional ability to fix their games. “Call of Duty: Vanguard” has the potential to be remembered as one of the best titles in the franchise of all time. I haven’t had this much fun playing one of them since “Black Ops 3,” which launched in 2015. Get in on the fun early, and I can guarantee that you’ll enjoy it.